Nov 29, 2013

Book Review: Fosse

Sam Wesson
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Fosse slinks along with a slouchy but intense rhythm, just like its subject. It was such a smooth read that I'd forget how long I'd been sitting there reading, and that I really needed to go to the bathroom. I got caught up in Fosse, and the people in his life, as if I were reading about characters in a work of fiction. When I was finished, I missed the world biographer Sam Wasson had recreated.

Choreographer, dancer and director Bob Fosse changed the look of dance. He had an unmistakable style, but despite the familiarity, his work was somehow always surprising. Modeled on his own hunched posture and turned-in toes, its twitches and snaps were a rebellion against all that was familiar in choreography that came before his. It set the template for future generations of dancers and particularly Michael Jackson, who led the charge for the MTV generation.

Fosse often took a dark view of his success and felt deeply hurt by the bad reviews or the unsuccessful ventures in his life. After winning the Tony, Emmy and Academy Award all in one year, he barely celebrated his victories before bracing himself for the inevitable downfall. He lived as if he didn't deserve to, burning his lips with ever-present cigarettes and popping amphetamines to force himself through a brutal work schedule of his own design. Maybe he sold tickets, but he didn’t think he was classy enough. He was razzle dazzle.

Fosse with Viveca Lindfors in Pal Joey
A lot of the darkness came from his days as a teenage hoofer in a burlesque house. The bump and grind he observed on the stage, and his experiences with aggressive strippers backstage, set the foundation for much of his life. It was the root of his sensual, bold and cynical artistry. It may also have also set the stage for his complicated relationships with woman, to whom he could be loyal, unfaithful, tender and cruel all at once, and often was.

Wasson could have gotten himself into a twisty mess attempting to analyze Fosse. He dives into the story instead, aided by interviews with dozens of subjects who knew and seemed to uniformly love the man, despite the pain he could cause. They lay out the confounding, frustrating, but always seductive layers of his personality with the kind of flair you would expect from people who live show business.

Though I adore Fosse as a choreographer above all, I approached this book curious to learn more about his movie career, from his early, brief roles in front of the camera to his turbulent and controversial work as a director. Wasson does a good job digging into the back story of these years, but I was most impressed with his descriptions of his movie dances. He brought them to life with such skill that I almost felt like I was watching them. This gave me more faith in the rest of the book, where he wrote about choreography from stage shows that I hadn't seen.

The chapter titles count down the years and moments remaining in Fosse's life, a morbid choice that perfectly fits his obsession with what he felt was a fast-approaching death. He didn't fight it, he even encouraged it. I wish he hadn't. Even knowing how the story was going to end, even though it came at the end of 700 pages, it arrived too quickly for me. It was upsettingly and appropriately abrupt.

Many thanks to Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing a copy of the book for review.

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Nov 24, 2013

Quote of the Week

I was the same kind of father as I was a harpist - I played by ear.

-Harpo Marx

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Nov 17, 2013

Quote of the Week

I was determined to wipe Audrey out of my mind by screwing a woman in every country I visited. My plan succeeded, though sometimes with difficulty. When I was in Bangkok, I was with a Thai girl in a boat in one of the klongs. I guess we got too animated, because the boat tipped over and I fell into the filthy water. Back at the hotel I poured alcohol in my ears because I was afraid I'd become infected with the plague. When I got back to Hollywood, I went to Audrey's dressing-room and told her what I had done. You know what she said? "Oh, Bill!" That's all. "Oh, Bill!" Just as though I were some naughty boy....She was the love of my life.

-William Holden, about Audrey Hepburn

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Nov 14, 2013

Book Review--Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Rebel

Ann Dvorak: Hollywood's Forgotten Rebel
Christina Rice
University Press of Kentucky, 2013

Could Ann Dvorak have been a legendary movie star? Did she have the chops to join James Cagney and Bette Davis at the top of the pile? It's nice to think so.

On the verge of making it big, perhaps, the young star ignored her studio contract and took off on an extended honeymoon. Her career trajectory went from a steady incline to a series of ups and downs, and eventually fizzled out. In her fascinating biography of the star, Rice attempts to solve the mystery of Dvorak's fall and reveal the woman who disrespected her studio, but adored her craft and all that life had to offer.

Ann Dvorak was on the stage before she was born, jostling around in her mother's belly as she performed in vaudeville. Anna Lehr found a small measure of fame on the performance circuit and in the movies and so her young daughter often lived with other family members or went to boarding school while she earned her living on the road. Sometimes Ann would go to the movie theater to watch her absent parent on the silver screen. Her father, Edward McKim, was also in the movie business, but not so much the marriage or parenting game; she would be out of touch with him for most of her life.

As a child Dvorak played a couple of roles on the silent screen. She was admired by the press, but the young actress didn't follow up on these parts until she reached her late teens. By then she was determined to be a star. Her mother worried about Ann's less than glamorous looks and rough skills, but recognized her daughter's unyielding ambition. She introduced her to Douglas Fairbanks and hoped for the best.

The friendly, unpretentious teenager worked her way up from the chorus line. Dvorak danced in a few early musicals and impressed enough on the set to become an assistant choreographer. From the beginning, she was good at building personal relationships. She'd help anyone below her to advance, especially the young dancers she watched after like a den mother.

It was Ann's knack for friendship that transformed her from a gawky kid into a glamorous actress. Buddy Joan Crawford tried to help her win more substantial acting roles, but she was probably most helpful for the influence she had on Ann's style. The young actress learned quickly how much image could help her.

Actress Karen Morley was another well-placed friend. She got Dvorak into the right party, where she performed a slinky dance in front of a stunned George Raft. This was enough to convince director Howard Hawks to cast her as Paul Muni's rebellious sister Cesca in the classic gangster flick Scarface (1932). In that role she was an instant hit: lively, intense and so glamorous she barely resembled the girl who set her sights on acting only a few years before.

Many delicious roles followed, in some of the best movies from the pre-code era. To watch her in Three on a Match, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain and The Crowd Roars (all 1932), you'd think you were witnessing the birth of a legend. But she fell hard for Louvain costar Leslie Fenton, and it changed her whole life.

Fenton looked upon acting as a means to an end. He'd make some money, and then travel the world until he was forced to work again. Ann thought she wanted a career more than anything. Fenton thought he'd never marry. They both proved themselves wrong, tied the knot and took off for an extended European honeymoon. She had a contract with Warner Bros., and the studio was not amused.

When Ann returned to Hollywood, Warner Bros. took her back, but she was no longer groomed for stardom. Though she stayed busy, she'd rarely rise above supporting player again for the rest of her career. Later attempts to freelance and try different mediums like Broadway and television were moderately successful, but never quite what she'd hoped for. She was too good not to get work, but that ill-advised honeymoon gave her a permanent handicap in the industry.

Rice does some impressive digging to flesh out the details of Dvorak's life. Without the benefit of a strong research archive dedicated to the actress and many potential interview sources long gone, she has still created a well-defined portrait of a mysterious woman. It's impossible to fully understand what inspired Dvorak to make the decisions she did, but after reading this book, I felt I knew her well.

In the midst of studio lawsuits, troubled marriages and never-ending career frustrations, Ann found plenty of time for fun, new interests and adventures. Rice nicely balances the bitter with the sweet. While Dvorak's risky decisions could cause her much suffering, they also opened up remarkable experiences that would be impossible to have in a more practical life.

Despite the Hollywood biography familiarity of her troubles with alcohol, an abusive third husband and overbearing studios, there was nothing truly standard about Dvorak. Her eccentricities are more fascinating than any role she ever played and Rice shares them with respect and a beautifully novelistic style.

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for sending a copy of the book for review.

Nov 12, 2013

DVD Review--Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room

Imagine spending your toddler years making over one million dollars a movie only to be a penniless, illiterate has-been by the time you are eleven. Where would you go from there? Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room introduces you to a remarkable woman who was smart enough to survive this situation and to win great admiration for her work in the process.

Whenever I see a photograph of child performer advocate, film historian and writer Diana Serra Cary, I have to stop and stare. Whatever it was that made her a sensation with the 1920s film-going public as the child actor Baby Peggy is still there. In her nineties she has an appealing, almost regal presence, with her head held high and often crowned with a cloud of carefully arranged curls.

It is her eyes that grab you though: they are gentle, intelligent and observant, and they have a brightness that draws you to her. Her appeal as a child actor began with those expressive eyes. They were the source of hilarious reaction shots, heartbreaking agony and an irresistible charisma. It's star quality that you can't manufacture or explain. It's just something to be admired.

Cary in 2012
When Cary's father brought the family to Hollywood to put his expertise with horses to use as a stuntman and stand-in for Tom Mix, it was his young daughter who attracted the most attention. The obedient, expressive 18-month-old was deemed perfect to star alongside Brownie the Wonder Dog in a series of comedy shorts, and she did to great acclaim, until he died several months later. By then it was clear that the charming toddler could hold the screen on her own.

In Vera Iwerebor's documentary, Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room, recently released by Milestone Cinematheque on DVD, you get to know the child star and the confused, if relatively content adult left in the aftermath of her brief heyday. Cary worked closely with Iwerebor to produce the film, even helping to write the narration. It is her story as best as she is able to tell it. This is because, for years, the former Baby Peggy didn't know what had happened to her as a child star, and she continues to search for answers today.

In a series of interviews in her home, interspersed with film clips and narration, Cary shares her memories and discoveries about her life. She is an unpretentious hostess, sharing her stories in a straightforward, pleasant manner. It is poignant that learning her own remarkable, troubled history took so much detective work, but she seems strangely at peace with her past. She was worked hard, put in dangerous situations while filming and then her fortune was stolen from her, but the former child star does not seem bitter. Instead she appears bemused by her screen legacy and the life she has led.

Iwerebor follows Cary as she attends silent film festivals that feature screenings of her films. It turns out Baby Peggy still matters to a lot of people, as can be seen in the long line of fans who wait for autographs and photos with the elegant star. She is accompanied by her granddaughter, who has the remarkable experience of seeing her grandmother as a toddler on the big screen.

Cary's relationship with her granddaughter is featured in the film, an interesting choice, because it brilliantly demonstrates how thoroughly she missed out on her own childhood. She speaks to her grandchild as if she is an adult, comfortable in their relationship, but not entirely understanding what it is to be a ordinary child.

TCM fans may recognize The Elephant in the Room from a broadcast on the channel earlier this year. As with that airing, the film is accompanied with the three charming Baby Peggy shorts: Carmen Jr. (1923), Peg O’ the Mounted (1924) and Such is Life (1924) and the feature-length melodrama Captain January (1924). I loved Peggy in all of the films, but was especially delighted by her comic chops in the shorts. I'm trying to think of an adult star who could achieve as many perfect reaction shots in a ten minute flick as she did. There's also a slideshow of Peggy images set to That's My Baby, a hit song that was written in her honor.

While many of these elements could have stood on their own, to have it all in one set is hugely rewarding. It's a fantastic introduction to this uniquely appealing performer.

Many thanks to The Milestone Cinematheque for providing a copy of the DVD for review.

Photos from Wikimedia Commons

Nov 10, 2013

Quote of the Week

Sharon Tate came up and introduced herself. She said, quietly, "I must tell you something before we start working together. I can't act, but I somehow get by without anyone realizing, so don't worry."


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Nov 6, 2013

Book Review--Maureen O'Hara: The Biography

Maureen O'Hara: The Biography
Aubrey Malone
University Press of Kentucky, 2013

Maureen O'Hara didn't drink or smoke. She would never go out on the town to raise hell or have affairs with her costars. The actress was wholesome onscreen and off, which made me wonder if I'd have any interest in her life story. Well, I should have had more faith in wholesome, because she is plenty fascinating, though all told, there isn't all that much to say about this Irish American star. Stretched to slightly more than two hundred pages with lengthy plot and production descriptions of her less significant films, Malone's biography can feel slightly padded, but there is enough intrigue here to attract even a casual O'Hara fan.

Looking typically spirited in 1940
Born into a happy, supportive family in Dublin, O'Hara had a comfortable childhood. When she drifted into drama as a teenager, her father made the typical parental plea that she study bookkeeping as a back-up, but stage work led to bit parts in films and she quickly found herself firmly in the spotlight. She charmed Charles Laughton, who signed her to a personal contract and took her on as both a protégée and the daughter he never had. They appeared together in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939), which got negative reviews, but won O'Hara some admiration.

When Laughton set off for Los Angeles later that year to star in films for RKO, he took his nineteen-year-old discovery with him. In a later interview, O'Hara emphasized that she didn't go to Hollywood, she was brought there. In the beginning it was almost too easy for her, and perhaps she set herself up for disappointment. Her first US role was opposite Laughton in an instant classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). The path to decent parts would rarely be so smooth again.

Swashbuckling O'Hara in The Black Swan (1942)
Despite the many mediocre roles that frustrated O'Hara throughout her career, her filmography has plenty of distinguished titles and variety. She was a hit in several swashbucklers opposite heartthrobs like Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks. Though she seemed to enjoy these lightweight action flicks, she was put to better use in classics like How Green Was My Valley (1941), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and The Quiet Man (1952). Acting wasn't an all-encompassing passion for her, but she fought for quality roles and took pride in her talent.

Much of her legend is due to the many films she made with grumpy genius John Ford. O'Hara had a complicated relationship with the director. Malone devotes a lot of attention his bizarre behavior with the actress, from sending her love notes that he never followed up with passes, to his randomly doodling penises on a piece of paper in front of her. He alternated between love and hate with many, John Wayne took some of his worst abuse, but he seems to have acted with particular intensity towards O'Hara. Day speculates that this is perhaps because of Ford's desire to have been born in Ireland, and what she represented to him as an Irishwoman. This seems logical given his lifelong obsession with his parent's homeland.

While O'Hara alternated between fearing and appreciating Ford, for the most part she could stand up for herself. There was no casting couch for this Irish lass. When married director John Farrow attempted to punish her for resisting his advances, she put him in his place with a sock to the jaw. She cracked a hand bone trying to hit Wayne for real while acting in a scene on a day when he'd annoyed her. Wayne was quicker to protect himself that some of her other male co-stars.
With lifelong friend John Wayne in McClintock! (1963)

Despite her strong will and quick temper, O'Hara could weaken to convention. Her marriage to alcoholic and abusive dialogue director Will Price lasted over ten years, though he made it clear early on that he only wanted to marry into a life of luxury. The actress could not face revealing her failure to her public and distracted herself with work. Her one gift from the union: daughter Bronwyn, whom she doted on with a devotion rare among movie stars.

Be it a rotten husband, a bad investment or a string of lousy roles, O'Hara seems to have been just as determined as a lot of her fiesty characters. She ultimately triumphs professionally and personally, even finding true love. Her no-nonsense spirit, enduring loyalty to friends like Wayne and ability to speak her mind in a highly quotable manner keep this biography of a squeaky clean lady lively (though I found the excessive use of parentheses distracting--yes, I'm aware of the irony here). Malone writes with good humor and properly in the spirit of his subject.

Deepest thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a review copy of the book.

Nov 3, 2013

Quote of the Week

I'm a Democrat--well I don't know what I am anymore. I'm a radical. As I get older, I get more radical. I consider myself a liberal in the best sense of the word.

-Myrna Loy, in the seventies

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